Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Home Team Advantage?

Tom Colicchio assesses the veterans' advantages and disadvantages.

As you all know, I am seldom at the Quickfire Challenges, so I don’t see what goes on there until I watch the edited episodes. Watching this one, I was struck by how ticked off the chefs were when they were told that Stefan, CJ, and Josie were going to be competing alongside them. They immediately started bitching -- they were not shy about it. I get it -- the chefs were concerned that the new (i.e. old) three would have an advantage over them because the three had been through the process before.

 It might seem that CJ, Josie, and Stefan have an advantage… but do they? Let’s break this down, pluses first:

· These three know what to expect. Yes, they do. They’ve already had plenty of practice making dishes under severe time pressure, in teams, solo, with unexpected ingredients, in weird locations, for world class chefs. Yes, they’ve been through it before. For what that’s worth.

· They have experienced Judges' Table. Yes, they’ve all been there for both winning and losing dishes. They know what it feels like. For what that’s worth.

· They know the mechanics of the show. They’ve lived in a house with competitors, they’ve had to collaborate with their competitors, they’ve been through the rigors of this very intense competition. All true. Again, for what that’s worth.

They also face the following potential pitfalls not faced by the rest of the contestants:

· While we judges always strive for complete objectivity, it’s hard not to expect more from them because they’ve been here before (Quail is small, Stefan? Did you really use that as an excuse for overcooking it? Newsflash, buddy: It’s a quail. Deal with it.)

· They may not display the same edge as the new contestants, precisely because they have been here before, and they may be feeling a bit above it all (not naming names here… pretty self-evident…)

· They may think that they “know what I’m looking for.” If they’re saying that, then they don’t know what I’m looking for. Here’s what I’m “looking for”:  the same thing anyone dining in a restaurant is looking for, i.e., food that is cooked andseasoned correctly, and that has been made from an interesting, thoughtful and creative combination of ingredients. That’s it. There’s no angle, no hidden agenda, nothing to figure out that makes it an advantage to have competed before.  

I think the minuses cancel out the pluses.  I think it’s a pretty even playing field, and everyone is going to have to bring it.  I think this assessment was born out by the Elimination Challenge, in which the Red Team wound up one of the two teams on the bottom. Too many components in their dish, overcooked quail, not enough cherries in a sauce they made a quart of (so the proportions were way off)… I’m not sure that changing their concept midstream was the great idea they thought it would be.

This week’s was a good Elimination Challenge. Seattle is known for its seafood, plus we shot this episode at the beginning of the summer, when we also had beautiful produce such as rhubarb and morels at our disposal. I was glad to have a challenge right at the get-go that could highlight Seattle in this way. The challenge gave us a chance, further, to see the chefs’ product… and we did have some great results.

The chefs did well overall. As for Blue Team, there were a few noteworthy reasons for their win. They had a great concept for the dish -- they didn’t overcomplicate it, as there is a tendency to do in such team challenges, when every chef on the team wants to display his or her culinary point of view. In contrast to such overwrought dishes, the Blue Team’s dish seemed as though it had been conceived and made by one person. Each person did one thing to contribute to the dish -- one made the fish, one the dashi and one the prawns, so they had not only a well-conceived dish but also a good gameplan for executing it. And they worked collaboratively. John looked out for the team, for example, noticing that Kuniko had burnt the chili oil and bringing it to her attention with enough time for her to make a new one.

Our favorite part of that dish, hands down, was the cod -- Kuniko was the clear winner for that. The technique of poaching fish in oil (or duck fat) reflects a relatively modern way of cooking -- it’s been around for the last ten years or so. So the idea of poaching the fish in chili oil was a very good one. To do it well, though, the chef must understand that the bottom of the pan is hotterthan the oil itself, so if the fish is sitting on the bottom of the pan, itcould become overdone. Making the fish well requires the discipline to let it cook slowly, and it’s not something every chef could pull off. In preparing the cod perfectly, as Kuniko did, she showed really nice technique. This is why she won.

The losing Gray Team had a basically good dish. The garnishes were nicely done and the dish was seasoned well. Unfortunately, though, the fish was completely overcooked. The terms “overcooked” or “overseasoned” are never the end of the story in and of themselves -- whether they are a deal-breaker that will get a person sent home is always a matter of degree: the dish could be slightly overcooked or overseasoned… or it could be hammered. Stefan’s quail was somewhat overcooked; Jeffrey’s halibut was hammered. Had Jeffrey’s fish not been so drastically overcooked, Stefan would most likely have been sent home. His neck was saved in this challenge by the presence of a worse offender. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the Blue Team, the Gray Team did not display good teamwork. Brooke saw that Jeffrey’s fish was overdone and didn’t say anything to him. She just let the fish go out to the judges that way. The teammates should have been looking out for one another’s food, particularly when one of the components was something as delicate as halibut. I understand that it was early in the season and the chefs are just getting to know one another, but this was a team challenge, and Brooke wound up at Judges' Table with one of the two worst dishes, which is not a place she wants to be.But all in all, as I wrote above, I thought the chefs were off to a good start. Will the new (old) chefs pick up their game? Will Carla lower her decibel level in the kitchen before someone clocks her? Will Micah’s game face ever actually intimidate anyone? None of that is important; stay tuned to see what the chefs cook next, which is what matters. Have a good week, all.

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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